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Brazil's Invincibles

The magical Cruzeiro side that won the Triple Crown in 2003

Cruzeiro won the Brazilian Triple Crown- composed of the Campeonato Mineiro, Copa do Brasil and Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A- in 2003 with an outstanding team

Which sides come to mind when you think of the treble? Man United of ’99? Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan? Shamrock Rovers’ 1964 effort?

Well we present to you Cruzeiro’s 2003 team, who won the Campeonato Mineiro, Copa do Brasil and Serie A in the same season, remaining unbeaten throughout the first two.

Cruzeiro line up before a game, captained by midfielder Alex

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Cruzeiro line up before a game, captained by midfielder Alex

Cruzeiro’s Serie A campaign was equally impressive with Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s side, composed of some familiar faces, racking up 100 points and scoring 102 goals.

So what exactly made Cruzeiro one of the most successful sides in Brazilian domestic history?

The Octopus

Heurelho Gomes established himself as Cruzeiro’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2003, having graduated through their academy the previous year.

His performances for Cruzeiro were so impressive that it wasn’t long before he was in goal for the Brazilian national team, taking part at the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Gomes’ long arms and unorthodox (that’s being kind) approach to taking crosses earned him the nickname ‘The Octopus’, which stuck throughout his career.

In 2004 Gomes was spotted by Piet de Visser, the PSV scout responsible for recruiting Ronaldo and Romario, who convinced the Eredivise side to sign the Brazilian, sparking a European odyssey that took the keeper to Spurs, Hoffenheim and Watford.

Gomes was Cruzeiro’s first-choice goalkeeper by 2003

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Gomes was Cruzeiro’s first-choice goalkeeper by 2003

Take your pick at the back

Brazilian football is usually considered the home of attacking flair but one of the strengths of Cruzeiro’s squad was the defenders Luxemburgo could call upon.

Maicon, arguably one of the best right-backs of the 21st century, was involved in a fierce battle for a first-team place with Maurinho.

At centre-back Luxemburgo settled on a partnership of Cris, who’d go on to win four consecutive Ligue 1 titles with Lyon, and Edu Dracena, a no nonsense, fiercely reliable defender.

You could also add Luisao into the mix, although he signed for Benfica ahead of the 2003/04 season.

Leandro completed the defence, flying up and down the left with similar verve to Maurinho and Maicon, before joining Porto in 2004.

Cris left Cruzeiro to join Ligue 1 side Lyon in August 2004

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Cris left Cruzeiro to join Ligue 1 side Lyon in August 2004

Beauty and the beast

Every great Brazilian side worth their salt has a great number 10 pulling the strings.

Cruzeiro were no different, with Alexsandro de Souza, aka Alex, orchestrating attacks from midfield.

World Soccer’s Brazil correspondent Tim Vickery said of Alex: “He was such a clever player, head and shoulders above the rest, like a chess master who could see what was going to happen five moves ahead.

“He’s a legend in Turkey, too. It’s a shame he isn’t better known elsewhere.”

One of the problems with being as good as Alex was is that you’re constantly getting fouled

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One of the problems with being as good as Alex was is that you’re constantly getting fouled

Alex, who would go on to play for Fenerbahce, was named the best player in Serie A, an award previously handed to Romario, Kaka and Zico, with El Pais also naming him the best midfielder in South America.

His protection in midfield came in the shape of two pitbulls, the first of whom, Felipe Melo, arrived from Flamengo the previous summer and impressed with his trademark aggressiveness in his only season with Cruzeiro.

The second, Chilean midfielder Claudio Maldonando, would join Alex at Fenerbahce for the 2008/09 season and, in the words of Vickery, ‘balanced the side out very well’, ensuring that anyone who tried to bully Alex got a good kicking themselves.

Alex scored 23 goals for Cruzeiro in 2003

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Alex scored 23 goals for Cruzeiro in 2003

Striking out

Luxemburgo’s attacking plans had to be altered during the season when star striker Deivid left to join Bordeaux, having scored 15 goals in 19 games.

But, in Colombian Victor Aristizabal, Luxemburgo had a reliable striker capable of finishing off the chances Alex put on a plate.

If Aristizabal wasn’t available then Mota could fill in. Cruzeiro’s strength in depth was a massive factor behind the club scoring 100 goals in the league.

Aristizabal battles for the ball with Thierry Henry during the 2003 Confederations Cup

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Aristizabal battles for the ball with Thierry Henry during the 2003 Confederations Cup

The Schemer

Luxemburgo, who was rightly heralded for his feats with Cruzeiro, left to join Santos in 2004 and guided them to a Serie A title in his first season.

Real Madrid came calling, with Luxemburgo tasked to clean up the mess Mariano Garcia Remon had left and finish the 2004/05 season strongly.

But in December of 2005 he was dismissed by Los Blancos, allowing him to rejoin Santos.

Regardless of his failure at Madrid, his tally of five Serie A titles remains unmatched by any other manager.

Are Cruzeiro’s 2003 side the best Brazilian side ever?

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Are Cruzeiro’s 2003 side the best Brazilian side ever?

How are the side remembered in Brazil?

Despite their achievements you have to go a long way down the list of great domestic sides to find Cruzeiro’s 2003 vintage in the eyes of the Brazilian public.

Vickery explains: “There’s some heavy competition there, from the time before Brazilian football was an export industry- the Santos of Pele, the Flamengo of Zico, the Internacional of Falcao to name just three.

“I think older Cruzeiro fans would take the mid-late ’60s side with Tostao, Dirceu Lopes and Piazza.”

So there you have it. Good, but not great. Enjoyable, but not era-defining. Just don’t let Melo hear you say that.